The James Harden situation and Philadelphia’s path forward with Joel Embiid

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The situation in Philadelphia has gotten uglier over the past few days. It’s been seven weeks since James Harden picked up his $35.6 million player option and demanded the 76ers trade him. Trade discussions with his preferred team, the Clippers, have not gained traction. So Harden decided to make things uncomfortable when he publicly called Daryl Morey, Sixers’ president of basketball operations, a liar.

The NBA is now launching an inquiry in response to those comments. They want to gain an understanding of whether Harden plans on holding out from the Sixers and if both sides previously agreed to an illegal future contract. With training camp quickly approaching, will either side budge? And what does their best forward with Joel Embiid look like post-Harden?

When could the Harden situation resolve?

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

According to Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN, James Harden has privately maintained that he called Daryl Morey a liar in response to him ending trade discussions with other teams. If he is referring to a broken promise that he would’ve been traded by now, then neither he nor the Sixers would be disciplined by the league. In the end, this would serve as an attempt to pressure them into fulfilling his trade request as soon as possible.

It has been speculated since last summer that Harden declined his $47.3 million player option and took a $14 million pay cut with an understanding that he would receive a new long-term deal in the 2023 offseason. According to Wojnarowski, Harden is unhappy that he did not receive a maximum-level contract offer this summer from the Sixers.

Whether or not that was the case, the Sixers are now maintaining cap flexibility for the 2024 offseason. This eliminated the possibility of the Sixers giving him a long-term contract last month had he opted out.

While more players have trended toward financial security with extensions since the COVID-19 pandemic, Harden’s zag put him in this financial predicament. He could’ve been starting a three-year, $161 million extension that was offered to him less than two years ago by the Brooklyn Nets. That extension would’ve had him pick up his $47.3 million player option, allowing him to earn $208 million between 2022 and 2026.

He’s now on track to earn $68.6 in the first two years of that stretch with no clear indication of what his future earnings will look like. He lost leverage in getting a long-term deal by prioritizing destination over security and couldn’t regain it despite free agency interest from the Houston Rockets. In hindsight, he probably would’ve gotten his eventual trade request from Brooklyn fulfilled after Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving soon made their respective trade requests.

The possibility of Harden earning over $50 million annually is gone, and the ability to maintain his current rate isn’t guaranteed. His attempt to get traded to an over-the-cap team that needs a lead guard like the Clippers represents his best chance at maximizing his earnings over the rest of his career. It is difficult to identify many teams that need Harden or are willing to sign him to the type of deal he commands.

The Sixers already went through a sour trade request two years ago when Ben Simmons demanded a trade and sat out games. However, there are several differences between Harden’s situation and Simmons’. The biggest is that the Collective Bargaining Agreement has stricter rules for players on expiring contracts that withhold services. While players get fined for each game they miss in both situations, a player on an expiring contract could become ineligible from being a free agent if he holds out for 30 days.

Because this rule makes a holdout unlikely, the Sixers could hold onto him into the season in hopes of other teams getting involved. More teams will be able to make offers once recent free agents become trade eligible in December and January. While no offer may come that tops the Clippers’ respective offer, more offers could at least improve theirs.

The other big difference between this situation and Simmons’ is that Harden is an aging veteran who just made his third trade demand in less than three years. It’s hard to imagine a team giving up multiple meaningful assets for him as if he was a player in his prime. But with the Sixers unlikely to retain him with 2024 cap space aspirations, they may prefer to get a deal done ahead of training camp, especially if that’s what Joel Embiid prefers.

The Sixers path forward with Joel Embiid

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers are projected to generate up to $55 million in cap space next summer. That projection factors in renouncing all cap holds and waving all non-guaranteed salaries, with the exception of keeping Tyrese Maxeys $13 million cap hold. The Sixers would be able to spend that amount of cap space, then go over to re-sign Maxey up to the maximum.

They could be working with a smaller cap projection if they plan on retaining De’Anthony Melton. They could retain his Bird rights if they hold onto his $15.2 million cap hold, which would decrease their projection to $40 million. He is currently eligible to extend for up to four years, $75 million, which has a starting salary of $16.7 million. The Sixers could look to extend him now at around his maximum extension amount since it wouldn’t significantly impact their cap space.

As of now, the 2024 free agency class isn’t looking that much stronger than 2023’s. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can become free agents, but they seem likely to remain with the Clippers if they acquire Harden. Pascal Siakam, LeBron James (player option), and OG Anunoby (player option) are some of the other top unrestricted free agents.

The Sixers could gain more cap space if they’re able to find a trade for P.J. Tucker, who has a $11.5 million player option for 2024-25 in his age 40 season. According to HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto, Tucker’s name has come up in trade talks with the Clippers involving Harden. The Clippers would need to send out $46.8 million to acquire both Harden with his $5.3 million trade bonus and Tucker.

A package featuring the expiring deals of Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington, and a young player like Bones Hyland, Amir Coffey, or Kobe Brown could get them close enough with a portion of Harden’s trade bonus waived. Then the rest of the deal would come down to first-round pick compensation and protection. According to Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill and ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the Sixers are prioritizing first-round picks from the Clippers for Harden. The Clippers can trade a maximum of two first-round picks right now in 2028 and 2030.

If successfully traded to Los Angeles, the Clippers could be motivated to align all three of Harden, Leonard, and George on lucrative long-term deals. Leonard is currently extension-eligible while George becomes eligible starting on September 1. Harden will not be extension-eligible this year and would have to re-sign with the Clippers on a new contract in the 2024 offseason.

Such a return could help replenish some of Philadelphia’s draft picks. They are currently down two first-round picks over the next seven drafts in 2025 and 2027. However, such a framework certainly doesn’t improve the Sixers’ title chances this year and arguably makes them worse. The possibility of this season becoming a “gap year” could explain the recent reports of the vultures circling around Embiid.

According to Goodwill, teams like the Heat and Knicks are keeping an eye on the situation. But it’s hard to imagine Sixers proceeding like this if Embiid isn’t on board. Although they’re risking their title chances this season, it’s arguable that this exact iteration of the Sixers has reached its ceiling. Taking a step back to reshape the roster with cap space and draft picks may be the team’s best path forward to eventually win a championship around Embiid.

Story originally appeared on HoopsHype

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